Top 5 ways to build psychological safety in the workplace

It is more important than ever for businesses to be able to implement procedures and policies that encourage a safe and healthy working milieu for all employees

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Despite the benefits to employers of ensuring safety in the workplace, a study indicates that over half of employees in organisations around the world have experienced bullying at work

The average working adult spends roughly 35 to 40 hours a week in the workplace, adding up to over 2,000 hours per year. As such a substantial feature of our lives, it is crucial that people feel happy and safe within their workplace environment. Yet new research of 1,000 employees in global organisations by The Oxford Group, a City & Guilds Group business, shows that for the majority, this is not currently the case.

For victims of workplace bullying, one of the most difficult aspects is knowing who to approach with the problem

While nearly all respondents (94 percent) said they consider psychological safety to be important, citing productivity, accuracy and staff retention as the results of feeling psychologically safe, only 10 percent of businesses treat it as a priority. Shockingly, the study revealed that over half (52 percent) of employees in organisations worldwide have encountered workplace bullying and felt psychologically unsafe at work.

It is now paramount that businesses implement policies that facilitate a healthy working environment for all employees: one that helps reduce the risk of occurrences of workplace bullying. We’ve outlined our top five measures that businesses can take to start tackling the widespread challenge of creating a safe environment for staff at all levels.

Defining psychological safety and employee wellbeing
Psychological safety and employee wellbeing are important terms, which need to be fully understood by every person in a business to be effective. They can often come with certain biases and understanding that is different for each individual and company, so it is clear that there is not one formula available that fits all. It is, therefore, a challenge for business leaders to understand and define what psychological safety is across the workplace and to cultivate a trusting, safe, and engaged culture tailored to the employees’ needs.

It is important that, at the end of the day, people feel supported to work to the best of their ability and feel comfortable enough to speak up on issues. Once psychological safety has been established and senior management teams are made accountable for its prioritisation, approaches and ideologies can be passed onto the rest of the business to create a safe working environment.

Agreeing how to approach workplace issues with all employees
For previous victims of workplace bullying, one of the most difficult aspects is knowing who to approach to deal with the problem. Is it the HR team, direct managers, or senior leaders? The lack of clarity between who to report issues to can lead to a continuation of bullying and people suffering in silence.

City & Guilds Group’s research details a disconnect between which department is accountable for escalating or consoling issues. Almost half (43 percent) of senior management expect HR to deal with the psychological safety of employees at work, while employees (56 percent) believe it should be the responsibility of line managers and senior management.

It is essential that all employees, regardless of level, are aware of the official channels to take when they have a workplace issue that needs addressing. By establishing this across the business from the outset, workplace issues can be dealt with far more seamlessly.

Improving workplace wellbeing processes
Many businesses overlook the impact of workplace environments until an issue has grown so far it cannot be ignored. Our research revealed one in five firms would take action to improve mental safety if a serious situation arose, while 22 percent of senior management would interfere if high-profile press incidents occurred.

As tempting as it might be to adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach, it is not practical in the fast-paced, digital, working environment we’re in. Increasingly, issues to psychological safety have escalated at lightening quick pace, with well-known incidents, like #MeToo, being only the tip of the iceberg.

To improve workplace environments, there are simple, pre-emptive steps to take. Employee feedback forms for managers and employees can determine improvement areas, while flexi and remote working can encourage greater employee satisfaction levels. Adopting anonymous whistleblowing practices can reduce the fear of backlash, preventing individuals from reporting bullying or unsafe environments.

Curating a culture that promotes learning, rather than finger pointing
Blame and finger pointing can stem from a number of reasons, mainly pessimism in the workplace. Our study shows that the majority of negative feelings stems from either feeling overwhelmed or inadequate, to arguments in the workplace. In the short-term, these can cause tension and conflict between those involved. If left unchecked, this resentment can fester and significantly affect working relations between colleagues, increasing the likelihood of further tension and disputes.

It is important that employees are aware of how to address problems in a manner that is constructive, rather than personal. Businesses and business leaders can advocate a culture of learning, team mentality, and self-improvement within a workplace. This means that when mistakes inevitably happen, employees are not scolded but are encouraged not to make the same mistake again.

Revamp old policies
Email and internal messenger services provide quick ways for employees to communicate and collaborate but they also have their limitations.

Our research showed that 63 percent of business leaders have claimed these mediums and social media, have made it difficult to manage the psychological safety of employees. Workers are left more anxious, and stressed, both in and out of the workplace.

Verbal and non-verbal communication play a huge part in communication. We’re first and foremost human, and technology can often remove that element. People on the receiving end can interpret innocent, quick messages as cold or rude, which can impact their psychological safety in the workplace.

Embracing technology is essential for businesses, yet firms must revamp policies to manage welfare that is fit for this digital age. One-to-one meetings are important to familiarise employees with each other but when face-to-face meeting aren’t possible, businesses need to be willing to adopt virtual meeting capabilities.